A kitten’s mother typically starts to wean him/her in the fourth or fifth week of their life. It may be earlier if:
- the litter is large or;
- the mother is stressed or;
- the mother is unwell.
The mother (‘queen’ in cat fancy parlance) drives the process of weaning her kittens. Dr Bradshaw says that kittens ‘rarely if ever’ wean themselves. This implies that perhaps in exceptional circumstances a kitten might wean himself.
The mother does the following to wean her kittens:
- starts to spend time away from them and
- blocks access to her milk by lying or crouching with her abdomen in close contact with the ground or floor.
The kittens become hungry and they stop gaining weight. They become inquisitive about alternative sources of food.
In the wild – urban or countryside wild – mother cats bring prey animals back to the nest/den and dissect it to allow kittens to eat it. If she is a domestic cat she will encourage her litter to join her when she is fed by the owner.
The kittens pester their mother for milk. She rations them for about 14 days. This forces them develop their ability to eat and digest meat.
The eating of meat rather than milk changes their anatomy and metabolism. The kittens’ intestines become lined with villi. These are small, ‘finger-like projections made up of cells that line the entire length of your small intestine’ (verywellhealth.com). They increase the amount of nutrients that can be absorbed.
In the human environment the kittens will soon discover their mother’s food bowl and take morsels of solid food. For domestic kittens they will gradually increase the proportion of solids they eat. Dr Morris says that it is ‘important that the kittens obtain their lapped milk and their solids ar a warm temperature’. Otherwise it can cause digestive problems he says.
The enzyme lactase which breaks down milk sugar is replaced by sucrase which breaks down sugars in muscle fibres. This is when cats become lactose intolerant and why cows milk can cause diarrhoea.
The kittens become fully weaned at about 8 weeks old. The mother may allow them to suckle occasionally perhaps to cement family ties.
The mother has to carefully assess her kittens’ needs to keep them hungry enough to want to eat meat while not harming their health.
The mother shows her offspring how to hunt in the next stage before independence. For the big cats like tigers and for the mountain lion this is a time to find their home range. They may travel long distances to find a suitable territory. They may struggle and die in fights with resident tigers.
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